Rotten to the Core: The College Accreditation Barrel Roll

Recently my wife and I flew from California more than halfway across the country to participate in Parent's Weekend at our younger daughter's college. It's located in what some might call "fly over country." We had a great time meeting members of the college staff, watching a football game and exploring the quasi-rural mid-America setting in which the campus is located. The school isn't affiliated with any church but, as a professor characterized it during a pre-decision visit, is a "mere Christianity" college integrating Faith and Reason. 

At a reception for over 1,000 parents attending the weekend event one could not miss the full collection of school pamphlets and brochures spread on tables attended by volunteers inviting us to sign up for various fund raising groups and future activities. I noticed stapled pads of printed bond paper with the herald "The Hollow Core" on the top sheet and picked up a copy. 

The twenty-two pages were the effort of an organization based in Washington D.C. – the American Council of Trustees and Alumni – a group "committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability." It was founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney and former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, and boasts members from over 400 colleges and universities. Saul Bellow is on their board.

The full title of the report I collected is "The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum" and I suggest that you take a look at it for yourself. It likely was on the table and available for parents because the college takes pride in its core curriculum and wanted to share the reasons for that pride and how the college contrasts with other schools.

In my CE September 19, 2007 article titled "What's College About Anyway" I commented on another booklet that was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to provide heads up advice to parents and high school graduates as they make decisions on choosing a college or university. The comments from readers of that column were generally supportive of my contention that parents are wise to be concerned with the lax standards of behavior at many schools. Readers mentioned drinking, the cost of tuition, and alluded to an aspect of education that resembles monkeys being trained to perform. I took that last comment to be in support of those colleges that strive at teaching students how to think, not what to think. The shallow academic courses existing on many campuses are a main concern of both ISI and ACTA.

For the past several years our federal government's Department of Education has intruded into the higher education arena with several regulations affecting colleges. One is casually referred to as "affirmative action." Another is "Title IX" which among other things requires that sports programs at schools be balanced with men's and women's teams. The result has been a growth of women's sports and the elimination of certain men's teams simply due to the limited dollars that schools allot these activities. UCLA's Men's Gymnastics Team, that provided three medal winners at the 1984 Olympics, no longer exists due to balancing; yet there are presently two more women's sport programs at the school than men's. 

But it is easily argued that sports participation is not the reason we attend college – learning is – and that's what I'd like to concentrate on with this article. 

 Lately, the accreditation process – as with what happened with Affirmative Action and Title IX – has increasingly become the tool of choice that the federal government has tried to use in its growing intrusion into the academic arena. Some educators throughout the country are pushing back. What's at stake in their mind is the independence that has characterized educational institutions since our country's founding. You can get a glimpse of the arguments by reading a summary in a May 25, 2007 article appearing in "Inside Higher Education" and at the ACTA web site. What you will find there is what accreditation has not brought by way of quality and meaningful higher education. ACTA wants college trustees and alumni at schools from which they graduate and to which they are asked to provide counsel to be more assertive in promoting a tradition of serious scholarship.

Some readers may wonder why a concern for federal intrusion into the means by which colleges and universities are accredited is a big deal. Remember Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut? Yes, those Supreme Court cases were about abortion and privacy, but the decisions hung on points that many argue were nowhere in existing law. In fact, two justices wrote in dissent of Roe, "[we] find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment." That was in 1973. 

When you dig into the accreditation controversy you find a number of points of interest. Not only are transferring college students affected by the acceptability of their previous work at their new school, but new players on the field – for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix and National University – are issuing diplomas that require far less time to earn than any traditional college. And post graduate schools and employers are looking at these "Bachelors Degrees" and being asked to believe they represent the same level of scholarship as required of a four year program. It's more than a turf battle.

So What About the Hollow Core?

The nature of what is taught in colleges and qualifies as core knowledge originated my examination but it got complicated. And some would argue that's because we have government involved with education in the first place — and I would agree. Whether it is our K-12s or higher education, government introduces a component that threatens the parent as the primary educator in one instance; and due to the strings it attaches to federal financing grants, forces other institutions to adhere to policies affecting admission and accreditation with the potential of dictating course content. If you think I'm overreacting you need to remember Roe v. Wade and the comments in dissent by those two justices; and imagine what a faith based college might do if it were informed by government that the "light of faith" could not inform its search for truth. Not if it wanted to get federal funds.

In ACTA's report on the Hollow Core, they examine 50 universities from throughout the U.S.: The Big Ten, Ivy League, Big Eight, The Seven Sisters (women's colleges which include Smith) and an assortment of schools that include Cal-Berkeley, William & Mary, and Duke. Believe me, it's an impressive list if "widely known" or "elite" are your guides.

ACTA concludes their "wake up call" by asserting that "judging by our sample, colleges and universities … are not living up to their responsibility to provide their students with a solid general education … that will equip the next generation to lead richer and more productive lives." What they found missing were required courses covering "the most important events, ideas or works known to mankind … considered essential for an educated person."  Let's look at the basis for those statements.

While college catalogs may say one thing, the course syllabus tells the real story and all too often required classes are shallow and superficial. The report informs us that Texas Tech offers "History and Philosophy of Dress" as a Humanities fulfillment; Dartmouth offers "Ghosts, Demons and Monsters" as a Literature fulfillment; and at the University of Minnesota you can take "Rock Music from 1970 to Present" to fulfill your core requirement. That's just a sample and my own investigation substantiated ACTA's claims and findings. Too many of the classes offered are a joke, even at some "Catholic" colleges. 

In order to "grade" the 50 schools, ACTA determined that a solid core should include seven subject areas: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, Government/History, Economics, Math and Science. I was overwhelmed at the fact that only a few schools on the list included Government/History and NONE of the 50 required a course in Economics. While it may be a dismal science, this failing at the college level may explain why so few in our society understand concepts of the free market, or can make a case for Capitalism. It's also a likely reason why the public is unable to understand the dynamic effects of tax cuts and free trade.

At the Parent's Weekend I met a couple from Michigan whose older son is in an Engineering program at the Big Eight school from which the father graduated. It was one of the twelve schools that with only one core subject requirement received an "F" on the ACTA report card. I thought of the dichotomy in having one child attending a school that ACTA would likely give an "A+" and the other an "F" and still can't reconcile the parent's choice. But it should remain their choice, not bound by federal fiat.

In the November issue of First Things, Fr. Richard Neuhaus shares an anecdote in his "While We're At It" comments about an encounter with a student during a college visit.

"You mentioned the Cold War. Could you say a word on what that was all about?" That came during the Q&A after a lecture at a prestigious university. My talk was on a "big think" topic: tragedy and hope in human history etc., etc. And yes, I could say a word about the Cold War, and more than a word. It is not unusual to find students at the best of schools for whom the Cold War is as distant as the American Civil War, and it is not entirely unprecedented to encounter students who are uncertain about which came first.

In my novel, ReEnchantment, a family is growing in their frustration with their kids' schools. One night during dinner, the father in the story quizzes his high school aged daughter. 

"So Julia," he asked. "You're taking American History. When were the French and Indian wars?"

Julia looked up timidly. "I don't think the French ever invaded India, Dad." 

Phil looked at Miriam but didn't say anything.

Evelyn Waugh's Scott King characterization of students being "stamped" is an euphemism for the training parents are willing to allow the higher education system to provide in order to justify the return on investment they want in exchange for tuition payments. It's as if they value a paycheck more than a mind that can reason. 

By the way, only one college of the 50 earned an "A" on ACTA's report card. It's a Christian school in Texas. You guess.

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  • Guest

    By the way, only one college of the 50 earned an "A" on ACTA's report card. It's a Christian school in Texas. You guess.

    I would have thought that "Christian school in Texas" would have been the University of Dallas, though I believe the University of St. Thomas in Houston would also have scored as well. Having scanned the report, however, it is clear that neither of these schools makes the list of fifty – and probably rightly so, given the scope of the report (generally very large and well-known schools). I won't spoil anyone's guess here, but at least the exclusion of those two schools will refocus anyone who is leaning towards a smaller school on the report. Those smaller schools weren't graded.

  • Guest

    This is a very interesting article.

    I have a cousin who's son attends Ave Maria in Florida and the hoops the school has been required to jump to go through for accreditation are legend. The most frustrating aspect of the whole process is the school had to restart the whole process all over again when they moved from Naples to their new campus and now will not be fully accredited for at least another 5 yrs, from what I have heard.



  • Guest

    My guess is Baylor University.

  • Guest
    Stacey Johnson is a good guesser. And friends of Thomas Hibbs, formerly a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, will be pleased that he is Dean of The Honors College at Baylor and currently filling the assignment as Provost. Baylor may not be U-Dallas, but with Frank Beckwith and Thomas Hibbs on the staff, it certainly gives the faithful something to cheer about.
  • Guest

    I attended a Big Twelve School (not the Big Eight since 1996-report is incorrect) with an undergrad in Environmental Engineering.  There are very few opportunities to take elective courses in Engineering, given the strict syllabus requirements for the degree.  Somehow, I did manage to take economics, political theory, international relations, and Japanese.  But these were only because I was interested in them.  I would be interested in what other countries are requiring for their studies as a comparison.Overall, most Americans are lazy and don't take their faith or history seriously.  It isn't surprising that schools with strong religious beliefs also hold strongly to history and other general studies.I also wouldn’t place all the blame on schools.  They are a reflection of the society.  How many typical American families have a “library” of classic books in their homes?  How many of the same families have extended cable?


  • Guest

    Aurit: I think if you read the report and other things I have written, you will get the sense of my and ACTA's interest in higher education for a purpose other than sports conferences. But your wonder about other countries and I assume their curriculum is part of one of the historical aspects of this subject. In the 1800's the "German academy" caught the attention of educators and in the U.S. we eventually got what we have now — training camps for job applicants. My daugther has a very good friend who is attending UC San Diego. Her major is Structural Engineering. She will need 120 units to get a diploma and a number of her courses must conform to the requirements of the major. But the University requires only one course in American History and a student who wished to do so would not have to take any of the basic courses among the social science or arts disciplines. There are lots of electives to chose. At UC Irvine a Phd candidate listed in the "who's who" of Sociology grad students teaches a 3 unit class to undergraduates that outlines the subject of pornography and includes a lecture where porn "stars" are invited to talk to the class. The enrollment exceeds 400 and the admin who answers the phone in the department's office giggles when asked why the class is so popular. This is a taxpayer supported school just like the ones in the Big Eight,… er Big Twelve. None of the people in my circle of friends are aware that this is what goes on at the schools. Were you?

  • Guest

    "While it may be a dismal science, this failing at the college level may explain why so few in our society understand concepts of the free market, or can make a case for Capitalism."

    If the author intends to purport "Capitalism" as consistent with Catholic social doctrine, it would seem that the problem he discusses with the educational system were extant at the time he received his post secondary education.  I was surprised to learn that myself.  If perhaps I have made an incorrect inference to the quotation, I beg your pardon.


    Aside from that, I agree 110%.  The education system is in sad shape at all age levels.

  • Guest

    I agree and first appologize about the big eight/big twelve conference issue/comment.

    I have taught myself, through self-interest many of the finer points of our culture and specifically Catholic culture.  Having three little ones under 5, which puts a different perspective on the world and what future generations will face.  I hope the 20th century was enough of a reminder of the evil that man can bring.

    The University of Nebraska has it's share of very poor classes.  I know of friends that would return from a class where discussions about condom use were part of the discussion on how to solve world AIDS.  Little time was given to abstenance education, unless it was a humorous jab.  There were a number of courses in "women's studies" (enough to get a minor) and they were out right awful classes (not that I took any of them).  This is right in the middle of the Lincoln Diocese, which is one of the best in the nation.  Thank God for the Priests and the Religious that helped me outside of class!!!

    Overall, public schools (and many private schools) are all about the money.  If they can admit everyone and pass everyone, then it is 4-6 years of income at 10-20K/year.  And that is the only economics that matters.

    Some professors continue to be very good, in light of these circumstances, and I applaud them for their effort, and thank them for their time in educating me.  There are many good ones out there.

    Education at any level still starts at the home.  My true battle is just beginning. Grade school will start next year for my oldest…

    God help those parents (and their children) who don't have a clue…

  • Guest

    mac314: I plead guilty to supporting free markets and free peoples guided by religious principles. And I don't want to get into a discussion on Catholic social doctrine. The "dismal science" reference is a remembrance of things past — how "Economics" was referred to by professor types — and was only meant to punctuate my impression supported by anecdotal evidence of listening to people ramble on and on about economic policies and politically motivated schemes wherein it becomes very clear, they don't have any knowledge or even a fuzzy awareness of what the buzzwords used in discussing the market mean. Does that help? 

    Merry Christmas. 
  • Guest

    Not only are transferring college students affected by the acceptability of their previous work at their new school, but new players on the field – for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix and National University – are issuing diplomas that require far less time to earn than any traditional college. And post graduate schools and employers are looking at these "Bachelors Degrees" and being asked to believe they represent the same level of scholarship as required of a four year program.

    I don't mean to wax cynical, but I have a degree from a traditional university. My wife has a degree from the University of Phoenix, and I can tell you: her degree took as much work as mine did. The fact that UoP compresses the chronological time seems to indicate that they understand better than the traditional university how higher education is imparted in fact and are willing to do away with the fantastic notion, still prevalent at many traditional schools, that a genuine liberal education is still offered. I'd rather we still had a mandatory system of imparting traditional liberal education, but if we can't have that, I'd just as soon we got rid of the whole facade, along with all the postmodern garbage that goes along with it.

    Put another way, if and only if a college education is to mean more than practical training for entering the workforce, then the means employed by a traditional university are superior to the intensive and highly focused approach favored by UoP. Otherwise, there is nothing to differentiate even an Ivy League education from that provided by the for-profit schools, except perhaps the quality of the business and professional contacts (which interestingly enough, has only a utilitarian, vocational value when placed in such a context). You can put together your own high-quality general core equally well at either, or you can get away without it at either (excluding, of course, schools like Baylor).

    Actually, I take that back. Many students at UoP are studying business administration: they, at least, will get several courses in economics as standard fare in the curriculum.

    All this, actually, is what drives my interest in U-Dallas: I want my children to go to a school where a solid liberal core is still valued. Frankly, I hope that there are more schools like U-Dallas and Baylor as our four kids grow up, and I hope we can somehow afford to send them there. But if that could not be had for some reason, then I'd just as soon not deceive myself – or my kids – into believing that it's really being offered. And if it's not really being offered, I'd rather not pay for it, either.

  • Guest

    Homeschool "Nfp" Dad: Okay, first please decode the name.

    Second — In my professional life I work with a wide range of professionals in industry. A few years ago I was frustrated with a client who was adament about having a position filled with a college graduate. I could go on but the point is that during a conversation I asked a business friend why a college education should matter for the kind of job my client needed to be filled."It proves he can finish something," he replied

    At the college my eldest attended — and finished — the classes were conducted in sections of 15 or so and the word college had special meaning. So did all the adjectives that are built on its root. I'm not going to suggest anything about a distance learning experience — it's a subject I'm likely to write about in the future — but I wonder about the "shared responsibility" that certain colleges rely upon for learning, and what happens in a commuter kind of experience or one where the interaction is online. Mark that I said "wonder" here. Is the "distance" or storefront school any different than what many institutions have become? That's a great question to explore.
    None of this discussion depreciates the evil done with federal accreditation mandates. I think we all can agree on that.
  • Guest

    NFP stands for Natural Family Planning.

    At my school, most of the upper level courses for my major (linguistics) were with as few as 8 or 10 people, though I think that has more to do with unpopularity of the major than anything else. In my minor (computer science), 30 or 40 students per course was common in the upper level courses. Lower level courses were often imparted in a lecture hall across the board. And I don't mean to leave the impression that my school (UMBC) offered a bad education. The education was quite good, though UMBC, I think, also suffers from the malaise of many schools on the ACTA report: one can fulfill the general requirements without really broadening one's horizons into the realm of classic liberalism. I certainly was not required to take an economics course until graduate school.

    My wife was in classes of perhaps 20 to 25 most of the time at UoP, meeting in classrooms dedicated to study. And shared responsibility takes many forms. At UoP, it is made explicit by dividing students up into work teams, many of which work together throughout an entire course of study (perhaps as many as 20 courses, since lots of UoP students transfer lower level credits in as my wife did). None of this implies that UoP is on the same classically liberal level as, say, Baylor and certainly not U-Dallas. But its problems (and here I must admit that I know nothing of the online version of UoP) are the same as the problems at most other schools on the ACTA list. What irks me is that UoP is often denigrated by those who extol the virtues of traditional schools even though the extolled virtues also exist at UoP – and the often unmentioned vices as well.

    At times I think that some folk are simply uncomfortable with a university that explicitly seeks to turn a profit, thinking that being a not-for-profit organization is one of the prime virtues of the traditional school (and now I understand the NFP confusion). I think, however, that this is a facade as well. Though many traditional schools struggle to pay the bills, many do not. And someone wiser than I will have to explain to my undiscerning mind how Harvard (for example) is not explicitly seeking a profit. Its behavior (spending just 4.2% of a $35 billion endowment, or less than a third of the $5 billion endowment increase) certainly suggests otherwise.

    But again, seeking a profit is not a vice; I certainly do not share the sentiment implied by the ABC News article I linked to. Good for Harvard for doing well in the administration of its gifts. But if seeking (and turning) a profit were a vice, it would be as much a vice for Harvard and other elite schools as for UoP. Why the former receives one sort of treatment in this regard, and the latter another, is quite mind-boggling to me.